22.02.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On US Secretary of Defense’s Visit to South Korea

32432131231From February 2 to February 3, 2017, 13 days after his appointment as US Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, made a trip to South Korea. The Head of the Pentagon’s idea of choosing South Korea as the first country that he would visit after his appointment is rather symptomatic to talk not only about the visit, but also about the related trends in military cooperation between two countries.

Mattis’s visit was preceded by a number of measures taken and statements made that were designed to strengthen South Korea and the US’s struggle against a common enemy in the face of North Korea. Initially, US Army Commanding Officer of the Pacific Region, General Robert Brown, called North Korea the biggest problem and the most likely threat to the United States. He even used the term “Black Swan” to refer to North Korea, as a synonym for its unpredictability, describing the country as having “aggressively escaped with its nuclear and missile programs.”

Following these events, Head of the National Security Administration of President Kim Kwang Jin arrived in Washington to confirm the cooperation of Seoul and Washington in opposing North Korea’s development of nuclear and ballistic missiles. This discussion mainly centered on a project involving the placement of THAAD mobile missile complexes in South Korea, to be implemented following a plan that it is aimed at improving the country’s national defense.

On February 1, 2017, Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea, Lee Sung-jin, in a telephone conversation with his colleague, Joseph Dunford, requested the placement in South Korea of US strategic weapons necessary for deterring North Korea’s rapidly developing missile and nuclear programs.

Just before the trip, South Korean Defense Minister Han Min Gu and his US counterpart talked on the key issues they were going to discuss and their plans to relay a clear message of warning to North Korea. They acknowledged that the DPRK “may at any time carry out provocative actions of a strategic and tactical nature,” and stressed that if this so happened, North Korea would be met by a decisive response of the power of the two countries’ arsenals. James Mattis also emphasized that one of the topics of the talks would be the placement in South Korea of the THAAD missile defense system, which are, according to US allegations, an exclusively defensive system designed for protection against potential missile attacks by Pyongyang.

The main outcome of the talks centered around the confirmation of the implementation of an agreement on the placement of the US THAAD missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula this year. Han Ming Gu explained to his American counterpart the situation around Beijing’s pressure on Seoul surrounding the issue of the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. In response, James Mattis proposed establishing joint efforts to convince China that THAAD is merely a defensive mechanism against Pyongyang’s missile threats.

Afterwards, the two heads of the South Korean and US defense establishments gave their overall assessment of the North Korean nuclear and missile threats, noting the importance of taking further steps towards strengthening the bilateral alliance. They also agreed on the need to further strengthen the bilateral relations into a comprehensive strategic partnership based on common values and mutual trust. James Mattis reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to protecting South Korea in the event of an attack.

The two ministers also agreed to hold the Key Resolve, a joint command-and-staff training exercise that is scheduled for March, in a broader format. In order to “restrain the provocations of Pyongyang,” these exercises are going to incorporate the nearly-invisible B-2 Spirit strategic stealth bomber from the US, the fifth generation stealth fighter F-22 Raptor, located at the US base in Japan, as well as B-1B Lancer supersonic strategic bombers and the B-52 long-range bomber, capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The latter two are currently deployed at the USAF Andersen military base on Guam. In addition, the mentioned fighters, nuclear submarines and destroyers are equipped with the Aegis Early Detection System, as well as the strike force led by the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, which arrived on the island of Guam on February 10.

Moreover, the Key Resolve shall for the first time see the development of a scenario that will take into account the work of the THAAD missile complex. Based on it, plans are underway to work out steps that will be employed for monitoring the progress with North Korea’s ballistic missile program, as well as its liquidation. The two sides also agreed to maintain regular round the clock contact between the defense-ministries of the two countries.

Equally important is the fact that the parties avoided bringing up the problem of the increasing costs of maintaining US forces in South Korea. Perhaps, this is because, even when he was still rallying for nomination, James Mattis made it clear that the US is not planning on withdrawing its military forces from the Korean peninsula, given the instability of the situation in the region. Mattis strongly believes that the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea and Japan can significantly complicate Washington’s efforts to protect its interests and ensure the security of the Allies in the region, although he also notes the need to increase the allocation to Seoul for the maintenance of American troops stationed there.

South Korean media extensively covered the visit, noting that the fact that this was the first foreign visit of the new Head of the Pentagon underlines the seriousness of the US’s attitude towards the North Korean nuclear missile threat, and the United States was confirming the inviolability of their promises to support the South Korean-US alliance and ensure South Korea’s protection under the Trump administration. The White House also viewed Mattis’s visit as an indication of the importance of the Asia-Pacific region for the Trump administration and as a desire by Washington to strengthen the South Korean-US alliance in an effort to counter the North Korean nuclear threat. White House representative, Sean Spicer, drove home this point in his address on February 3.

Also commenting on the confirmation of the parties’ positions on the issue of the deployment of THAAD, China pointed out that South Korea and the United States are indeed treading on dangerous ground. On February 3, Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Lou Kahn, reiterated this point, adding that Beijing’s position on this issue is firm and non-negotiable. On the other hand, Chinese media have also been criticizing Mattis’s visit to South Korea, with the contemporary edition of the Huanqiu Shibao expressing its well-known position by pointing out that South Korea has long lost its independence on foreign policy, and has methodically become a pawn in the crafty hands of the US.

However, we must view the results of Mattis’s visit in the broader context of how “hot” the spring of 2017 is going to present itself, because indeed, the prerequisites for this have already been set.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.